by Collins Laatsch

Atomically Correct: Janet Beard

Inequality of the sexes. Invisibility under Jim Crow. Nukes.

Columbus author Janet Beard’s Atomic City Girls (due out this month from Harper-Collins) is a moving piece of historical fiction set in her East Tennessee hometown in the mid-’40s—but its explorations are as prescient as yesterday’s CNN headlines.

Her story revolves around June Walker, an 18-year-old who hops off a bus in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and into a secretive world of security checks and supervised machine-work—where she and others like her have been made, unknowingly, the gears of nuclear war.

In real life, hundreds like June were part of the Manhattan Project, the clandestine creation of the war-ending nuclear bombs. Beard, who grew up in Oak Ridge, deftly paints a picture comprised of cultural familiarity and painstaking research.

“I search for the details of everyday life that will bring history to life and try to avoid imposing my 21st century ideas onto my characters, though I know some of that is inevitable.”

In this period of the 21st century—with the President going Twit-for-tat with the country’s most volatile leaders, and with a new renaissance in equality gaining steam, Beard’s novel feels like a callback and a call to arms.

“The educational and career opportunities that have opened up for women in the past seventy-five years are staggering,” she says.

Women streaming into factories to help the wartime effort was the first huge push out of the home and into the workplace. But getting one’s foot in the door is only the beginning of a long battle.

“The situation was viewed as temporary, like rationing or blackouts,” Beard added.

“[And] seventy-five years ago, the concept of sexual harassment didn’t exist. Army training materials for the ‘girls’ like my protagonist June coming to work at Oak Ridge, explicitly instructed them that, while they should dress and behave in an attractive manner, it was their responsibility to avoid unwanted attention from male supervisors.”

In real life, as in her story, ordinary people from all over the Tennessee region and beyond came to work in Oak Ridge. Brought together for a single effort, but split apart by imposed social circumstance, Beard creates interactions and ramifications between not only individuals, but groups of people. Black Americans were an important part of the Oak Ridge workforce. Unfortunately, the Army deferred to the institutional racism of the Jim Crow South, building a fully segregated town in Oak Ridge. Some of Beard’s characters embody this conflict, humanizing a story of coming together that is often at odds with itself. The universalities of the workers were aspirations of a better life, and a desire to serve their country.

“They moved to Oak Ridge for both money and patriotism and were generally proud to be a part of the war effort. People placed a degree of trust in the government that is hard to imagine today. That trust led to U.S. victory but allowed abuses of power, as well. Yet conflicts persist around the world, and the human cost of war stays depressingly constant throughout history.”

In other words: the more things change, they more they stay the same:

“Because the U.S. has now been involved in wars for so long, I think it is easy for those of us without a personal connection to the Armed Forces to ignore them,” Beard said.

In an era where constant conflict has become normalized, Beard follows a ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ philosophy. Using the raw material of history, and flavoring it with fiction, Beard builds a bridge from the present that can tell us a vivid and living story, while retracing our collective steps, as well as missteps.  

Beard, who made her first publishing splash with upstart Two Dollar Radio, will keep the launch of Atomic City Girls local with a reception at their headquarters (1124 Parsons Ave.) on February 6. For more, visit janetbeard.com.

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